A report issued October 29 by Amnesty International details “unprecedented” levels of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic. Gang rapes, torture, executions and the recruitment of thousands of child soldiers have become commonplace, according the report, since a coalition of rebels who call themselves Seleka ousted President Francois Bozize in March.
Since then Michel Djotodia, a little-known rebel leader and self-appointed president has presided over growing chaos. Most public services do not function and shops have been closed in Bangui, the capital, while dissident rebel factions continue to roam the countryside killing and looting in a conflict observers see as a growing sectarian struggle.
Seleka rebels entered the capital in December of last year. The rebels are described as predominantly Muslim, from northern provinces and from neighboring countries. The Seleka shared power with Francois Bozize, the president of the last 10 years, until he was ousted and Djotodia declared himself interim president. The violence escalated three months ago when Djotodia banned the rebel forces that brought him to power and ordered them to disarm.
“Outside the capital the government can’t control anything,” said the Brookings Institution’s Amadou Sy, who called the CAR a failed state. Even the newly appointed prime minister, former human rights lawyers Nicolas Tiangaye, calls conditions in his country “catastrophic.” He told a New York Times reporter last month that the country is “a non-state.”
"The priority is security, security, security,” said European Union aid chief, Kristalina Georgieva, recently in the capital city of Bangui. Georgieva cited tuberculosis and malnutrition as immediate concerns for thousands who have been displaced. An estimated 400,000 civilians have been displaced by the violence. “Unless there is a rapid increase in peacekeeping forces to reverse this looting, it will be very hard to get sufficient help to people," she said.
Hollande concerned about regional threat
“There is also an emergency at a regional level…” said President Francois Hollande of France earlier in October in Pretoria where he was seeking South African support to manage Central African Republic’s recent crisis.
“Pay very close attention to what the French are doing,” said Sy of the Brookings Institution. “Whatever solution occurs, it will involve the French. This is part of the French sphere of influence.”
The Central African Republic is the center of violence and unrest in what experts now describe as Africa’s “arc of insecurity” that stretches from Somalia on the east coast to Mauritania on the west coast.
Ben Shepherd of Chatham House said the Central African Republic “has acted as a safe haven for dissatisfied militants from across the region.”
“There is a huge humanitarian crisis in most of the provinces,” said Gaston N’Guerekata, a math professor at Morgan State University who was recently in Bangui. “The people are living in the bushes like beasts with no food, no health care.”
“Economic life is very marginal because everything has been destroyed. Businesses belonging to non-Muslims have been destroyed. People have no money and civil servants haven’t been paid for months,” he said.
In addition to roaming gangs of hundreds of Seleka rebels, a large remnant of the terrorist Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda is reported to maintain a presence near the diamond mines in the east. The Washington Post reports the U.S. military recently increased the frequency of its drone and surveillance flight activity over the region, as part of the ongoing regional effort to target Joseph Kony, the messianic leader of the LRA.
Sectarian tensions increase
“We might witness a religious conflict,” Hollande said during a press conference in Pretoria. Brookings’ Sy said religious conflict is evident in Bossangoa in the north and Bangassou in the east, where the archbishop and the imam of Bangui traveled to quell clashes between Muslims and Catholics.
Observers say that a large portion of the Seleka are Muslims recruited from Chad and in Sudan, where Djotodia – a Muslim - is reported to have worked as a civil servant during the Bozize regime.
Shepherd of Chatham House says the makeup of the Seleka movement is more a reflection of the country’s “historic pattern of bringing in hired gunslingers from across the region.” It reflects Muslim marginalization in the region rather than a meaningful local Islamization.
There have been reports of Seleka destroying Christian churches, and attacking people believed to be Christians. In response militias formed by Christians have been formed to target Muslims.
Challenge for peacekeepers
A UN Security Council October 10 resolution gives Djotodia’s interim government 18 months to hold new elections, and demands that rebels disarm and allow humanitarian aid to enter the country where an estimated 400,000 people have been displaced by the violence. The resolution also approved support for the African-led AU mission. The Security Council will in November consider economic sanctions and the possibility of upgrading the peacekeeping mission to a UN force and taking on the coordination of a range of forces, including Ugandan troops reportedly chasing down LRA rebels in the east of CAR.
The Africa Union has between 1,400 and 2,500 peacekeeping troops from neighboring countries. The French government sent 400 troops to protect French national interests in this former French colony and is considering sending another 250 in the coming months. South Africa withdrew its contingent from the CAR when 14 South African peacekeepers were killed by rebels during Djotodia’s takeover in Bangui.
“The tragedy seems to be that this country has been ignored for many years,” said Shepherd. “It’s the ultimate orphan. There is so little for anyone to fight for. I think it will remain a chaotic patchwork of individualized and localized issues.”
Reporter Hannah McNeish contributed to this report.